An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson

The moon of Aenya in orbit around Infinity.

I’ve been on an astrophysics bender lately, reading Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles as well as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries. It’s interesting to see how a writer and a scientist approach the same subjects, how their ideas and focus diverge and where they come together. Naturally, this got me to thinking about my own cosmology, the one I invented for my work-in-progress Ages of Aenya. Whereas many people never wonder about the borders of Middle Earth, or any other such fantasy world, the scientific part of my brain has a hard time ignoring it. How can I not wonder where, exactly, Middle Earth is supposed to be on a cosmic scale? Is it on Earth? An Earth type planet? When I created my own fictional universe, I decided to embrace what most fantasy novels tend to ignore. In fact, the cosmology of Aenya is integral to the plot. Without tidal lock, a term which refers to a non-rotating planet or moon, Aenya could not have a dark hemisphere from which the horg and bogrens evolve, nor could there be the sun scorched wastes of the western hemisphere, where much of the drama takes place. Planetary physics is, in fact, at the core of the plot. And yet, my knowledge of astrophysics is limited to a handful of university classes and a bit of layman’s reading. What I really need is an astrophysicist to help me figure this stuff out. So who better to ask than the rock star of the stars, Neil deGrasse Tyson? Fortunately, his website lets visitors send questions about science, so I’ll be crossing my fingers in the hopes that he’ll be willing to help me out. Any answer Neil provides should help dress Ages of Aenya in the accouterments of science. So here’s my letter:


Dear Neil deGrasse Tyson,

I am a huge fan of your work. You not only have a brilliant mind for physics, but you’ve managed to bridge the light-year sized gap between human knowledge and those ignorant to it. My question relates to the novel I have been working on for the past decade, “Ages of Aenya.” The story takes place on the planet (or rather, the moon) of Aenya, which orbits a Jupiter like gas giant. Aenya is tidally locked, so one hemisphere perpetually faces the gas giant, while the other, at intervals, faces the sun. When Aenya moves into the dark side of the planet it is orbiting, the sunny side is also dark. In this way, one hemisphere remains dark while the other undergoes a kind of day/night cycle. So my question is this: On this type of planet, is it possible for humans, or beings with human-like anatomies, to survive? What happens to weather patterns if a planet doesn’t rotate? Is there any wind? What effect does a Jupiter sized planet have on the tides of that world? Am I wrong in any of my assumptions? Making a stab at feasibility, I have tried to wrap my head around these issues, but as I am not a scientist, the whole thing is beyond me. Any input on your behalf would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
Nick Alimonos

UPDATE!

Neil was too busy to respond, but another astronomer at the Hayden Planetarium did! Check it out:
The Hayden Planetarium on the moon of Aenya.

The Devil’s Advocate 3: The Cliche of Cliches

Clichés!

This was the obvious subject after my last two Devil’s Advocate posts. Now I’m not talking about starting with Once upon a time . . . although I am not opposed to that either, I am talking about story telling conventions, like the orphaned hero or the one-in a million underdog or the prostitute with the heart of gold. There is no more common advice in writing than, be original! Or as one book put it, Remember, novel means new! So who was I, even playing the role of Devil, to challenge such advice? For a long time I thought about it, afraid any argument I could make would get crushed. But then the truth hit me: we claim to want originality, but our pocketbooks prove otherwise. Look at the top grossing movies of all time: Avatar, Titanic, Avengers. While greatly entertaining, each of these films tells a very simple, unoriginal story. The same is true of top-selling books. Harry Potter and the Twilight Saga spring to mind. Even George R. Martin’s critically acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire closely resembles Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King. A cursory glance at the “New Fantasy” shelf in any bookstore will almost always consist of dragons, elves, vampires, zombies and hooded rogues. Where are the truly original works? Why aren’t more books like Mythago Wood at the top of everyone’s reading list? Why aren’t Franz Kafka or Kurt Vonnegut our most popular authors? If clichés were so off putting, dragons would have disappeared from covers years ago. The truth is, people continue to read and watch clichés, despite the critics, and there are several reasons for it.

For one, the average American reads between 6-18 books per year (statistics vary), while there are literally millions of titles in existence. Quite often, young adults cracking Eragon open for the first time have simply never read of Pern or Dragonlance, nor care to. Teenybopper girls devouring Twilight have likely never heard of Bram Stoker. What’s cliché for one person isn’t for everybody, which is why the most well-read individuals are also the most ardent critics of the cliché.

Secondly, nobody can agree on what a cliché is. For me, cliché is a useless word. The clothing industry has the right idea when certain styles are deemed “out of fashion”. Nobody is saying to never wear bell-bottom jeans ever again, but when a look appears frequently, it loses its appeal. The same is true of literary styles and concepts. In the seventies and early eighties, zombies were everywhere. For the next few decades, the walking dead dropped off the imaginary map, and then suddenly, without any provocation, the zombies came back. And in force! Just like bell-bottom jeans. Personally, I am sick of zombie, vampire, dragon and elf stories. In fact, in the 2012 Writer’s Market, some publishers went so far as to state in their guidelines, “We do not want any vampire stories.” These publishers were responding to the expected shift in fashion. They realize vampire stories can’t sell well forever. So maybe instead of cliché we should use the term fashion or trend when talking about books.

Thirdly, there is the prevailing myth that the opposite of the cliché exists. After all, if people hate clichés, they must prefer its opposite, right? But much like the giant squid, true originality is damn near impossible to find, or identify. Did you think The Matrix was original? Not if you saw Dark City or Existenz. In fact, the concept of reality not being reality is thousands of years old, going back to the Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, in his allegory of the cave. Where The Matrix managed to be more original was in mixing ideas. Nobody had ever seen a noir/Sci-Fi/Kung-Fu/action film asking age old philosophy questions; and keep in mind it’s only the Kung-Fu part that set it apart from Dark City, which came just one year earlier. Since no human being can possibly read everything ever written, you can only say a story is more original than another. As far as I am aware, E.A. Abbott’s Flatland, featuring geometric shapes as characters, is unique. But how can I know that for certain? I can only say with confidence that Flatland is more original than most stories. But weighing abstract concepts like originality is so open to bias, the whole exercise is pointless. Of course, I do not advocate photocopying Lord of the Rings and slapping your name on it, but I also can’t exclude anyone from writing a story involving evil magic jewelry that need destroying.

Historically, the idea of the cliché is a new concept. Take a look in any European museum, and you will find, with almost universal commonality, the same two subjects: Greek myths and the Bible. There is a reason Leonardo Da Vinci sculpted David and Michelangelo found himself unable to stray from the Bible with his equally impressive Pieta. In fact, any muscular man in a museum is assumed to be a Biblical hero, a Greek hero, or a god. A statue of Conan in the 18th century could only have invited confusion. But with the invention of the printing press and the start of the Industrial Revolution, humanity experienced an intellectual explosion. For the first time in history, literacy became a thing for everyone, and global communication allowed for the exchange, and mixing, of ideas from all over the world. Out of this explosion came the first forays into fantasy and science fiction. Writers were free to explore any concept imaginable, and thanks to minds like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, humanity became hooked on the new. Novels like The Time Machine dressed up old concepts in the clothing of science, but the idea of a stranger in a foreign land can be traced straight back to the Odyssey. The freedom of creativity that came at the turn of the century was a wonderful thing. Scientific discovery and sharing between cultures offered writers the set dressing to tell old stories in new ways, allowing for more originality, but the basic tenets of storytelling remains the same.

In the search for the ever elusive original idea, critics often neglect our literary roots. We are so accustomed to the notion of “new and improved” that we forget that the very best stories, found in Homer, the Bible, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights, have been told and retold for centuries. The Greeks and the Hebrews were fond of retelling their epics because they understood the value of story; they didn’t disregard or discredit inspiring ideas to meet the unrealistic demand for originality. They were of humanity’s first bards, so naturally, they discovered what truths resonate most with people; as the old adage goes, if wasn’t a good idea, it wouldn’t have become a cliché.

Why doesn’t the big bad wolf eat the three little pigs? Such an ending would make for a more original fairy tale, but people, by wide margins, prefer the happily-ever-after cliché. Even when the bad guy wins, as in some versions of Little Red Riding Hood, it’s to make a statement, to scare kids into obedience. Sure, Hamlet dies and his girlfriend commits suicide, but it’s the injustice of it that makes it a tragedy. Even the film Salo, reviled for its depictions of rape and torture, was made in opposition to the fascism that inspired it. We humans identify with our own natures, clichés be damned. We want good people to find happiness and cruel and sadistic behavior to result in bad consequences. The Greeks and the Hebrews figured this out long ago, and since then, the cliché of good conquering evil persists. Why else do people flock in droves to watch a boy grow up to overcome great evil? It’s a tale as old as time and it resonates deep within our subconscious minds. We love our clichés, our story telling conventions, just the way the Greeks and Hebrews did. We may dress it up in a hundred different outfits; we may try to create the illusion of originality, but in the end, it’s just the same old story.

Comics are Books Too

Despite growing evidence to the contrary, the myth persists that certain artistic mediums are inferior to others, or to put it in layman’s terms, that comic books don’t count as literature. But I am not here to argue definitions; I am here to argue that comics deserve the same respect as regular books without pictures.

At some point during the turn of the century, the myth of comic book inferiority was considered all but true by the literary elite. Today, these moguls of classic education gather dust in old university libraries like aging mummies, grumbling about the decay of the written word. They extol the virtues of The Iliad, due strictly to its historical importance, while not even considering super hero comics, which are mostly based on The Iliad. After all, isn’t Hercules just Superman without the cape? Isn’t Hermes the same as the Flash? Didn’t the Ancient Greeks spend more time drawing pictures of their heroes than reading about them, since only an educated few could read and books were only for the aristocracy that could afford them? But I digress . . .

I distinctly remember wanting to buy a few comics for the road trip I used to take with my parents and being told with a sneer by the middle aged woman across the bookstore counter, “We don’t carry comic books here!” as if I’d asked for the porn section (incidentally, there is a growing How-To-Do-Everything-Sex-Related section at my local Barnes & Nobles, so the times they are a-changin’). You’ll likely not encounter that kind of sneering attitude any more, with graphic novels garnering critical praise and numerous literary accolades, but comic books have a long way to go before they can sit on the mantle alongside the greats of literature. Some will argue that comic book readers are ignorant of what constitutes literary greatness, that if only we knew better, we’d understand that anything with the word Superman on the cover can’t possibly sit next to The Great Gatsby. But since starting my life long journey to becoming an expert in all things story related, I never understood why any medium should be thought of as inferior to another. To receive my BA in English Literature, I had to read nearly one hundred authors, including such greats as Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hugo, Dumas, Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville. Don’t get me wrong, I love classic authors, more than most people I know, but I am at a complete loss for why Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison cannot be counted among them—not necessarily as equals—but at the very least, associates. I have never been taught a non-biased way to measure literary value. Certainly, as one professor complained recently to me about The Hunger Games, modern books lack symbolism and metaphor and grand literary themes. But to that I argued, so what? Why are grand literary themes more important than inspiring the imagination? And for that matter, why does it go without saying that graphic novels do not or cannot court the same grand literary themes? So I’ve come to conclude, in my not very professional opinion, that these so-called literary gurus, these professors of the bygone era, are FULL OF IT. It’s prejudice, plain and simple. Certainly, there are a great deal of crappy comic books in the world, but an equal number of garbage novels too. Judging a story by its medium is like judging a person by his religion. It’s a conservative mentality, as it’s always the new kid on the block that has the most trouble fitting in. Only recently, film was granted art status by the high-brow community, following the footsteps of newcomers expressionism, cubism, and surrealism; so it boggles my mind how Roger Ebert, champion of film, can deny video games the status of art (or of ever achieving that status!). It would be like an African-American judge, having been denied the right to marry outside his race, denying marital rights to a homosexual couple.

All mediums are equal. Only individual works can be judged for their merit. To prove the point, here are five comics worthy of everyone’s respect:

 

1. Watchmen by Alan Moore

Considered by many the most brilliantly conceived super hero story ever told, Alan Moore deconstructs the super hero psychologically and sociologically. What are the moral implications to becoming a god? And what happens to real world politics and history when super humans become part of it? There is symbolism here also, if one cares to look for it, like the streak of blood on the cover that forms the hand of a clock counting down to doomsday.

2. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Following in the footsteps of Watchmen, Miller’s Batman struggles with his own belief system in a world gone to Hell.

 

3. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

A religious cult imprisons the god of dreams. Without the power to dream, the world falls into chaos. Through personification and metaphor, Neil Gaiman examines how life, death and dreams affect the world, in often haunting ways. Incidentally, Gaiman has authored a number of non-graphic novels.

4. All Star Superman by Grant Morrison

I have always loved Superman. And this comic explains why. In many ways a polar opposite to the psychologically tormented Watchmen, Grant Morrison gives us a Christ-like figure in Superman, a protagonist who stands as a role model for all humanity, whose strength of character outweighs his super powers.

5. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

An autobiographical comic about growing up in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Yes, you read that right. Comics can be about more than superheroes, and Marjane Satrapi proves it. While the artwork is minimal, the story is complex and heartbreaking.

My Interview with Author Michael Sullivan

me: Greetings, Michael. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.

Michael: Thanks for having me…I’m excited to do this.

me: It has taken you a long time to get published. During that time, did you make many changes to your book? Is there a significant difference between the self-published version of The Crown Conspiracy and what’s in Theft of Swords—the published one?

Michael: Actually that was something I was frightened about. I have a very complex plot and if you pull on one thread the whole thing could unravel. I also was fortunate to have Devi Pillai (senior editor at Orbit) assigned to my books. She thought they were some of the “cleanest” books she’d seen…and that relates to the story and how it is structured. I had always thought it was a strong story, but having someone in the industry verify that really felt good. Especially as I’ve heard some books need major reworks. Devi only had very minor changes, and they were all “suggestions” and not mandates. From a content perspective both releases are very similar.

The one exception…I added a new “starting section” chapter because originally the story did not start out with Royce and Hadrian (my main characters) and feedback from both Devi and readers indicated that this needed to be adjusted.

So, next to nothing from a “content” standpoint, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t substantial work done on the books. But the majority of it fell into the category of “copy editing.” The book passed through a number of editors and proofreaders and I was very impressed with their eagle eyes and extreme attention to detail.

me: Well, I agree that starting the series with Hadrian and Royce was a good idea. In fact, I was hooked by the humor of the scene, where some less experienced thieves try to rob them.

Michael: Yeah, interestingly enough – that actually was a “cut scene” from the third book. In Nyphron Rising (now the first book in Rise of Empire) Hadrian and Royce have quite a bit of strain in their friendship. Hadrian wants to retire, and Royce is fearful of losing one of the few people he actually cares about so he wants to keep him in Riyria. Because of the strain some of the “witty banter” is missing and the book isn’t “as fun” as some of the others. My wife wanted to add a scene to “bring more fun” into that book so I wrote something very similar to the scene you speak of. But then after she read it she agreed that it didn’t fit Nyphron Rising so back onto the cutting room floor it went. When the problem of a “new start” came up, I realized that this little scene would actually work quite well there.

me: Your wife has a good eye for fiction.

Michael: I agree. She is my first developmental editor and beta reader. All my books are significantly better because of her contributions. She finds all my nasty plot holes, tells me where the pacing is off, and finds areas that just don’t work well. The books would be much different without her and it’s a huge advantage to have someone who can be both supportive and tough simultaneously.

me: So, aside from that, was any of the 5% hard to lose, or do you feel this is the best version of your book it could be? Or are you allowed to answer that?

Michael: I didn’t really lose anything. The edits that were made fell into the “add” category…a bit more detail here…some further explanation there. Orbit also added a comprehensive glossary and index which people had been asking for over many years.

The only thing I took out was a slight modification to a scene in The Crown Conspiracy (first book in Theft of Swords). Previously, Myron killed a man in self-defense. This never did sit well with me, and I took the opportunity to relieve that burden, and Myron was very happy with that change.

As to what I can and cannot say, well I can say anything. I’ve never been a “toe the line” kind of guy. My freedom is extremely important to me and I’ve always been one to speak up, even on controversial subjects. The best way to get on my bad side is to think you can control me, or tell me I can’t do something. Fortunately no one at Orbit has ever brought done anything like that.

me: That’s great. Nice to know that writers can still be writers in the traditional sense. I also liked Myron and missed seeing him in the sequel.

Michael: Myron is my “big gun.” I saved him for the last two books (Wintertide and Percepliquis which are both in Heir of Novron). When Myron returns he is much different than the little monk you know and love. When I say that, many people become frightened because he is a favorite character, but then after reading the last book they end up loving him even more. I’m very proud of his character and the growth he goes through.

Oh, I just realized that I didn’t answer the question about the books being as good as they can be. I would say at the time of release they were. That being said I’m always working at the craft of writing and when I re-read them now I see things I would like to change, but even if I made those changes then re-read them ten years later there would be other things. Writing is one of those things that you can “polish” forever and at some point you have to enough is enough…it’s done…time to move on to something else.

me: I definitely agree there. I never feel my books are perfect, but I guess they’ll have to be whenever someone picks it up. Speaking of different books, I sorta felt tricked into reading the second part, Avempartha which was originally the sequel to The Crown Conspiracy. Was that your idea or the publishers’?

Michael: The idea to put them out as three, two-book omnibus versions rather than six individual books was Orbit’s idea. At first I was hesitant, but they had a valid point about the difficulty of keeping six books in stock across the country. Also, my books tend to be smallish (95,000 – 120,000 words typically) so putting them together provided the “heft” that many fantasy readers have come to expect.

From a content perspective, I think their idea was a good one. In many ways the first book, The Crown Conspiracy, is just a simple romp and in many ways can be thought of as a prequel. Avempartha is where the bigger sub-plot starts to emerge, and so putting them together does get the reader some exposure to that aspect of the series. I think that some who read Crown might think, “Nice, fun story, but nothing spectacular.” But then by the end of Avempartha those same people may say, “Oh, there’s more to this then I originally thought. I need to know more.” I really liked that byproduct in the combined edition.

One other good thing about Orbit releasing the books as they have, well several good things: a) paper versions are cheaper (about $30.00 total rather than $60.00) and b) the series as a whole had a shorter release cycle. Orbit put out the books in three consecutive months (Nov 2011 – Jan 2012). So the amount of time between the first book’s release and the last was just sixty days. If they had remained as six individual books it would have been six months or more from first to last. This meant that the final book, Percepliquis, which had never been previously released, got on the market much sooner.

Now that the whole series is out, I’m been converted and believe Orbit was right in their approach. The only thing I would change is to have the individual books still available in ebook form because six books at $4.99 seems more palatable than 3 books at $9.99 even though they are exactly the same total price.

me: I definitely appreciate that your books conclude. A lot of fantasy books don’t seem to know how to give closure, but you have no problem with that, and in fact, Theft of Swords had closure twice, which was nice.

Michael: I wrote the entire series before publishing the first book. Writing them all together gave me tremendous freedom. There were times that I would be writing in a later book and come up with a great idea, but to implement it properly would require a minor change in an earlier work. If those earlier books had been released, I would have been royally screwed. Writing the series this way worked out the best way it could have.

me: I know how the anxiety of getting published can make you sick. I have gotten literally sick over it myself. Do you think this is what was happening with you?

Michael: Lol, no, when I started writing the series I absolutely had no intention on publishing these books. So, there was no anxiety. I had spent more than a decade trying to get published and got nowhere. Then I quit writing altogether for another decade. When I started to write again, I only did so because I had convinced myself to just write something that I wanted to read. The books would have never been submitted anywhere if it weren’t for my wife and daughter.

My intention from day one was to make each book an individual episode with its own conflict and resolution. There would be a larger story (several in fact) that wove across all volumes, but those were like bonus material that weren’t essential to get the feeling of closure for the book you just finished. I wanted people to want to read the next story not “have to” in order to resolve cliff hanger issues, which are (in my opinion) a cheap way to get people to read the next book.

me: I agree. Cliff hangers are overrated.

Michael: I think cliff hangers are a “cheap trick” and can really piss off your fans. My daughter had a book she loved, but it ended in a cliff hanger and she never bought the next book by that author…or any others. She felt it was a betrayal of her trust in him, and I can see why she thought that.

From reviews, I sometimes hear people saying I have cliff hangers in my books, but really I don’t see it that way. Yes, there might be a comment or a plot point that makes you go, “Hmm, that’s interesting, I want to know more,” but the conflict of the book that you just read is fully wrapped up. What you came in looking for, you got resolution to. I’ve just provided a little tease about something else for the future.

me: So you wrote all six as a continuing series without knowing whether it would ever be picked up?

Michael: Yes, a technique I would not recommend to others. When I was first married, I stayed home to raise the children, and my wife brought home the money; back then I had written twelve novels and stacked up my requisite pile of rejections. After ten years, I determined that I was just wasting time and quit with a very melodramatic vow never to write creatively again.

It was my wife and daughter who insisted on getting them published, so while Robin sent out query letters I just kept writing. By the time she finally found a publisher they were done.

me: I am a bit skeptical about this story. Do you ever think that maybe you were just tricking your mind?

Michael: No, I’m quite self aware and too smart to fool myself. I don’t get tied up in knots about writing. To me I’m like a kid getting to play their favorite game whenever they want. I write for entertainment, and I’m a happy camper even if no one ever reads what I write. That being said, a story told around a campfire is better with people listening, so I’m thrilled to have people reading the books. But in many ways that is icing on the cake, the satisfaction I get is by writing something that I really enjoy reading.

me: So, why the original apprehension toward publishing?

Michael: Well, more than ten years of getting nowhere has a way of breaking one’s spirit. I wasted twelve years of my life pursuing a dream while all my friends and family developed successful careers. I was like Linus sitting in a pumpkin patch and felt like a fool for waiting for the Great Pumpkin. I finally gave up and went home.

me: Is there any chance that we might see any of the ten books you wrote before the Riyria books?

Michael: There were actually twelve. The Crown Conspiracy was lucky thirteen. Yeah some of them will be released, in fact I’ve already resurrected Antithesis, which was from that original batch. It’s totally different than the original, as I’ve now “found my voice” but the idea of the story remains the same. I also have A Burden to the Earth which was number twelve, and in many ways the book that broke my camel’s back. It is essentially done and could be published after a good copy edit. The problem with that books is that it’s very different than The Riyria Revelations. In many ways it’s almost the anti-Riyria and I’m not sure it would be well received by my current fans. That particular book is literary fiction with a main character that is not very likable. Whether I ever publish that one is hard to say, I’m still trying to decide what to do with it.

As for the other ten stories, they probably won’t be revamped and published. I have too many new stories running around in my head that I’m more interested in. It’s so much more fun to create, then to revise. I have more story ideas than I’ll ever be able to get down on paper before I croak. I just came up with two book ideas today and I have a backlog of ten or more that I could tap if or when I have time.

me: So you rewrote it or did you just edit it?

Michael: Antithesis was completely rewritten, basically taken down to the studs and rebuilt from scratch. I just reused some of the materials. One big issue was the setting. Unlike The Riyria Revelations, which is set in a standard medieval-esque fantasy setting, this book is contemporary, but I wrote it in 1983! So, yeah it was very outdated.

Back in the day, I had submitted it to several places, but they weren’t interested. Now I have started an audience, so selling it would, I think, be easier. Also, I certainly wasn’t as good a writer then as I am now, so it wasn’t worth doing just an edit on it. For many reasons it was just so much easier to rewrite from scratch.

me: But do you think it’s a good read? Personally?

Michael: Yes, I think it is a good read, but it’s not ready for prime time just yet, and that’s why it’s not been submitted to my publisher even though I technically “finished” it about nine months ago. My wife and a few trusted author friends have made some comments, so I probably have another month to get it into a shape that I’m ready to send it out into the world.

me: The hardest thing I find about writing is getting started. I don’t mean I have writer’s block; I always know what to write, I mean overcoming thoughts that you might be wasting your time, that you’ll never succeed. How did you fight those demons of doubt and fear in the early days?

Michael: Most writers will hate to hear that I’ve never really suffered from what most would call writer’s block. I have times where I’m stuck, or realize something isn’t as good as I would like it to be (which I just note for reworking on an editing pass), but I’m never blocked.

As I said, for me writing is fun. It’s a game that I like to play. I would rather spend my time writing then most other activities, so for me I’m excited when I get to write. As to getting started, I do a lot of up front research and immerse myself in background information. I may spend weeks or even years excavating little pieces of stories: things that would make a cool scene, finding a plot point that would be interesting. I collect them all up so that by the time I start the writing process, it’s kind of like a volcano with too much pressure built up. This makes it so that the story pours out of me really effortlessly, so starting isn’t a problem in that respect.

me: Yes, I get the same way, but I was asking about fear and doubt.

Michael: Oh, well yeah I think all authors have fear and doubt and if I believe those that have been doing it a really long time it never completely goes away. Everything I write, I’m convinced the book I just finished is a flop, until Robin reads it. If she gives it the thumbs up then it goes to my beta readers, and it’s only then that I start to breathe again. There is only one book I’ve ever felt one hundred percent confident in, and that is Percepliquis (last book in the Riyria Revelations). That was a case where all the other books built up the conditions for a perfect storm for it to grow out of. I’m not sure I’ll ever experience that again.

As to “wasting time” that’s exactly how I felt during that time before I quit writing. When I came back I didn’t care about publishing so that was very liberating. Nowadays it’s a bit different, as I actually support myself, and my family with my writing so I can’t afford to be paralyzed with fear.

me: You allude to the “Canterbury Tales” in your book. Was Geoffrey Chaucer a big influence on your work?

Michael: No, not really, that reference was just a little “tip of the hat” to put in something “cute and fun.” I do that from time to time. For instance, in the scene outside Gutaria Prison, Alric thinks he can open a hidden door by speaking some “special phrase.” That was my tongue-in-cheek nod to Tolkien. But no, those examples aren’t meant to have any significance beyond a little playfulness.

It’s interesting though, that sometimes people give me too much credit for things. For instance I was once reading a review where someone pointed out my “homage” to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber. They pointed to an inn that I named: The Grey Mouse. That, along with the fact that Royce and Hadrian share some similarities to Lieber’s duo, made them congratulate me for my cleverness, even though in that case I wasn’t doing anything like that.

me: I noticed the same thing with the dragon, about the story of how it was killed with a single arrow.

Michael: About shooting it being venerable if shot under the arm? Yep, same kind of thing.

me: Well, I have noticed these things can happen subconsciously.

Michael: Well Fafhrd can’t be subconscious as I’ve never read any of those books, or even knew they existed until after my series started coming out. I know they are classics, and it doesn’t reflect well on me for not knowing about them, but I actually discovered they existed when I was trying to figure out why this reviewer thought I was so clever. I do want to read them, as I’ve since heard my books often compared to them, but I’m afraid it might affect how I write Royce and Hadrian. The series is done, but if people want more stories with them, I want the freedom to revisit and write more. It won’t be until I’m one hundred percent sure that I’ll not write any more of them that I’ll pick up Lieber, so if anyone hears me talking about those books in a “what are you reading now post” it probably is an indication that there will be no more Royce and Hadrian tales.

me: As I was reading, I felt that Prince Alric and Myron were stealing the show. Do you ever feel that character have different plans for themselves than you intended?

Michael: The Crown Conspiracy is in many ways “Alric’s book.” He is the character that goes through the most change and growth. Similarly Nyphron Rising is “Arista’s book,” where she goes through her big changes. Royce and Hadrian are always thought of as the main characters but I designed the series so that their background is revealed, and their characters develop across the whole series. Theirs is a slow burn so they don’t have a single book that is “theirs” but in many ways they play key parts in all of them.

Myron is a show stealer; he is a very beloved character and I keep him in reserve so he only shows up in the first and last two books. But to answer your question, yes, characters have a life of their own, and often don’t do things I want them to. There are many characters, Myron included, that get more screen time than what I originally intended. As a writer, you have to listen to your characters, and always make them stay true to their own motivations. In Percepliquis I really wanted “the party” to go straight from the capital to the entrance to their quest, but it was cold, and late, and my characters insisted in stopping at a nearby town. I really didn’t want to write that, as I was excited to get to the adventure portion, but I couldn’t convince the characters. As it turned out there were some great scenes that came out of that side trip and I was right for listening to them.

me: For my final question: Couldn’t Royce have just tied a raft to a rope and just eased it out until crossing the Nidwalden?

Michael: Gah no, The Nidwalden is much too turbulent a river. You wouldn’t be able to swing out away from the shore, the force will keep you pinned to the shore. I’ve been whitewater rafting many times and I know how much force a river has. Even if you somehow managed that, the boat would be swamped, or destroyed, when it reached the tower. If you get a raft (or boat pinned) against an unmoving object it’s all over. Also the sides of the tower are vertical and even though Royce can scale towers pretty well, he has great difficulty with finely crafted structures made by elves or dwarves. There are no seams to utilize, so it’s very much like climbing glass.

me: Ah . . . the French cover did help to capture that image.

Michael: The French covers are beautiful and probably my favorites. The books have, or will have, fourteen covers (two in English (US and UK) and twelve translations) and while not all of them have been made yet of the ones I’ve seen I think the French are the ones I like the most.

me: Well, that’s all the interview questions I had planned …

Michael: Well thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it, and also thanks for the nice review.

Theft of Swords

No, I didn’t read the French versions, I just love these covers!

I was a bit worried about writing this review, because I know the author from his blog and the few chats we’ve shared. Before starting into his series, I asked Michael Sullivan to grant me an interview and he was gracious enough to say yes, so if I happened to really hate his book, or even dislike it, I knew I would end up in an awkward situation. I even contemplated bumping it up a star as a courtesy for doing the interview, but fortunately that wasn’t necessary. Michael Sullivan’s Theft of Swords is an honest to goodness great read. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, since great books come from great writers, and great writers don’t live anywhere anyone has ever heard of. Great writers live in the ethosphere among their kin, with elves and wizards. Or so I thought.

What immediately impressed me about Theft of Swords was the humor. While it isn’t straightforward comedy, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Too many fantasy books these days take themselves too seriously. Heroes are not so much heroes as sociopathic protagonists. Many modern authors attempt to be grandiose and dark (as if dark = good) while ending up with a story that feels pretentious and in need of Prozac. The lovable thieves that are Hadrian and Royce, on the other hand, brings to mind heroic duos like Batman and Robin, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. These are definitely characters you can root for. One is an idealist, the other a pragmatist, creating quite a bit of drama and hilarity. While you certainly won’t find any answers to the meaning of life here, Sullivan is going straight for the fun factor, like a good game of Dungeons & Dragons. In short, Theft of Swords is a swashbuckling, derring-do, Indiana Jones meets Lord of the Rings style adventure. Despite a bit of name dropping here and there, world-building never takes the spotlight. The focus is right where it should be: on plot. Theft of Swords flows, and after a few hundred pages, you’ll be happy to discover that things of consequence have actually happened.

Of course, Theft of Swords is not without its faults. Sullivan avoids the archaic diction of early fantasy works, which for me is a plus, but the modern lingo often feels out of place. While offering opportunities for humor, it sometimes seems ripped from a 70’s cop drama. Characterization is also weak. Despite liking the main characters, we rarely get to know much about them until the very end, which makes them a bit two-dimensional. It’s also a bit cliche in the setting department. Very little surprises here—Theft of Swords is yet another Anglo-European fantasy, existing on the same plane as Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the Drizzt Do’Urden saga. After reading fourteen books about elves, it’s hard not to get sick of it.

But there is enough good stuff here to outweigh the bad. I am especially fond of how Sullivan avoids the pitfall of many fantasy books I’ve read recently; specifically, he knows how to conclude things in a meaningful way. I can honestly say that I enjoyed his book more than the all too popular Game of Thrones for just this reason. In fact, Theft of Swords concludes not only once, but twice, as it’s really two books put together: The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. At first, I felt I’d been tricked into reading the sequel, but the ending of Avempartha was so satisfying I really didn’t mind. Minor spoiler alert here, highlight to read: Avempartha is more of a mystery than its predecessor, and you won’t see the surprise coming until the very last sentence, which is just the way I like it.  

So congrats, Michael Sullivan, you deserve your long sought success. Also, be sure to check out Michael Sullivan’s blog here: Riyria Revelations